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MSFT v.Next: Clues to the Future at Microsoft's Annual Shareholder Meeting

Microsoft held its annual meeting of shareholders on Tuesday, an event the company describes as a chance to outline its momentum in numerous product categories. But reading the meeting transcript reveals some interesting details about the future, and what Microsoft plans to do to confront various competitive threats and other corporate trends in the year ahead.

You can read the official description of the shareholder meeting on Microsoft's press web site. But the gory details are available in a transcript (Word format) and audio webcast of the event on the company's Investor Relations site.

Here are the highlights.

Shareholder Q & A

As always, the best stuff comes from shareholder questions, since these people aren't on script and have actual concerns. Among the details divulged during the Q&A at this meeting are:

Why is Microsoft so late with tablets?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer claimed Microsoft wasn't late to market at all and he held up a Samsung tablet as proof. "You can buy this today, Samsung website, Microsoft Store," he said, in a curious run-on manner. "I encourage you to stop by over here at Bellevue Square, Samsung.  I happen to be running the Windows 8 developer preview, but it runs Windows 7.  In fact, right now I'm running the OneNote application on the Windows desktop.  I can always get back to any Windows 8 application.  But, they're available today and I encourage you to stop by our store over in Bellevue Square here in Seattle and buy one."

Are we in the post-PC world?

Ballmer reiterated the company line that we're in a "PC plus" era but did so in a way that was even more aggressive and Windows-centric. This is the bit where Ballmer was misquoted recently and people thought he was talking about putting Windows 8 on a phone. But the context was a question about the post-PC era.

"We are in the Windows era," Ballmer said. "We were, we are, and we always will be. That's kind of what we get paid to do. We've got broad Windows initiatives driving Windows down to the phone. With Windows 8, you'll see incredible new form factors powered by Windows from tablets, small, large, pens, smaller, bigger, room-sized displays.  We are in an era in which the range of smart devices is continuing to expand.  That's a fantastic thing for Microsoft.  That is a real opportunity.  That is an opportunity that we will pursue by leveraging and sharing and driving Windows in new ways."

Should Microsoft be broken up?

I've often argued that the world would be a better place if Microsoft had indeed been broken up into two or, preferably, three companies in the wake of its US antitrust trial. And I mean better for everyone, except of course Microsoft's competitors. But that didn't happen, and it's not surprising that the guy running the company doesn't see doing so now as a viable option.

"The company doesn't kind of invest in things which are idly independent of all the rest of the activities that we do, and the amount of technology synergy and/or business synergy across our activities is really very high," he said. "The ways in which we might want to use our Bing technology to power our phones, our PCs, and our TVs is an example.  We use the same graphics technology, whether you're designing a new car as an engineer at Ford or Toyota or whether you're playing on an Xbox.  That's a shared bit of technology."

How will Microsoft better spread the wealth with its shareholders and raise the stock price?

Microsoft is "sitting on something like $50 billion plus," one questioner noted (some inaccurately). And he thinks Microsoft should share that with shareholders. More important, perhaps, is the issue of Microsoft's stock price, which has been in a holding pattern for about a decade.

"You want to retain enough so that the company has the strength to be able to take big risks, even in the face of some economic uncertainty," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates answered. "So, I've always been a big believer in having a very strong balance sheet for the company ... I think in terms of value creation, you know, if you pay out a dividend, the value of the stock will adjust downward because the cash is no longer in the company. "

With regards to the stock price, I'm not sure if even the world's greatest technologist can fix that problem.

"The big thing is the new products and the volumes of those products, and I certainly think the opportunity as the world's best software company is very strong, stronger today than it's ever been," he said. "Obviously we have a lot of upside in the phone and tablet business, we've got a lot of smart people working on those things. In the Office business we have to keep renewing our excellence and kind of surprising people with neat new things that are going on, you know, and certainly Steve [Ballmer] and his fulltime team are good about getting my input on those things, including some specific projects that I'm more involved in."

Interesting. And mysterious.

What's Microsoft stance on the "tax holiday" that some corporations are requesting so that they can bring internationally made revenues into the United States without incurring a huge tax penalty?

Microsoft's all for it. CFO Peter Klein said that the company was supportive of long-term corporate tax policy reform as well.  "A tax holiday of overseas tax sort of is a short-term step on the way to [long-term policy reform]", he said.  "I think, in the short-term, a tax holiday is probably beneficial, but it's certainly not the long-term goal.  So, it's one small step on the way there, and we'll see how that plays out." Ballmer added, "Corporate taxes in the US don't look competitive to corporate taxes elsewhere, and today's tax policy actually gives incentives to company, essential US companies, to invest outside the US.  And that's why there's a need for a broader set of reforms, but certainly a tax repatriation."

Why does Microsoft do business with authoritative governments like China that abuse human rights?

This one was pretty wishy-washy. Rather than try to enact change directly with China, Microsoft is instead "working with others" in the industry through an initiative that it started a few years ago called the Global Network Initiative or GNI. Google and Yahoo are part of this initiative, general counsel Brad Smith said. And GNI helps Microsoft ignore human rights abuses so it can continue doing business in such countries. Yes, really.

"GNI is based on a recognition of two principles or facts of life," Smith said. " The first is that a company does have to obey the law wherever it does business, regardless of whether it happens to agree with a particular law or not.  That includes laws that relate to freedom of expression.  But second, the world is a better place if we can promote some broad international or really universal norms that, in fact, encourage broad expression, as well as protection for people's privacy and their interests in their own personal data."

Product breakdown

Beyond this, we have some general, public statements about a number of future and struggling products. These statements are all attributable to Steve Ballmer.

Windows 8. "Windows 8 is one of the most important things we are working on right now ... no one has to compromise on the experience they want.  That means if you want to use the familiar desktop view with a mouse and a keyboard, you can, and it will work beautifully.  And if you want the tablet and touch experience, you can have that as well. "

Xbox. "Xbox is really an example of ... our willingness to make big bets that will play out over several years and ultimately create significant revenue, [and] an example of how our breadth as a company is a real strength, how different parts of Microsoft are working together to create interesting new scenarios that people love." Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division grew revenue 45 percent to almost $9 billion last year, he said.

Bing. "We've invested heavily in partnerships with Yahoo!, with Facebook, and with Twitter.  Bing's share continues to grow, and with Yahoo!, we now power roughly 30 percent of the U.S. search query market ... Bing takes a different approach, one where we're trying to help people accomplish tasks like booking a vacation or finding a place to eat or selecting a movie to watch from a phone, from a PC, from your TV ... We're clearly on the right path with Bing, a path to profitability, a path to radically change the way people use their PCs, their TVs, and their phones."

Windows Phone. "We also think we're on the right path with Windows Phone ... There are a number of new phones coming to market or that have come to market from Samsung, from HTC, from Nokia, and many others, with over 500 new features in the release that we just brought to market ... Our survey shows that people who use Windows Phone love it. They just enjoy how it bubbles up that information that's most important to them. They will say in their own words it's a much more delightful experience than navigating a sea of applications the way you do with other smart phones."

"Nokia's focus is squarely and exclusively on our Windows Phone.  They launched their first Windows Phone in Europe and we'll see devices here in the United States early next year.  We're working with them on mobile technology design, development, and marketing initiatives that will bring Windows Phone to a much wider range of market segments and geographies and across a much broader range of price points."

Skype. "We're now focused on making Skype even better and on making other Microsoft products even better because of and with Skype.  Together, we think there's a chance to really redefine communications.  We'll deliver what our consumer and business customers really want:  The ability to have one-to-one discussions or group meetings using a broad spectrum of devices across the enterprise and the home, the company and its partners and customers.  We'll deliver those capabilities in ways that let people chat, voice, video conference, and ensure they can move between all of these things easily and naturally."

Facts, figures, and other statements

Finally, there was an interesting breakdown of Microsoft facts and figures. These include:

Fiscal performance. Last year, Microsoft delivered record financial performance. The company grew revenue by 12 percent to nearly $70 billion. And operating income grew at an even higher rate of 13 percent to over $27 billion.

Shareholder benefits. Last year, Microsoft returned almost $17 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends. The company recently announced a dividend increase of 25 percent.

Customers. Microsoft has "a massive base of over a billion customers all over the world."

Partners. Microsoft has "the largest group or ecosystem of partners in the technology industry."

Employees. 92,000.

Windows 7. Over 450 million new Windows 7 PCs have been licensed so far.

Office 2010. Over 100 million new Office 2010 licenses have been sold so far. "Both Windows 7 and Office 2010 are the fastest-selling versions in their respective product categories of anything we've done in our history."

Server and Tools. This business has grown "from literally nothing in the early 1990s to a $17-billion business this past year."

Xbox. Xbox is the number-one entertainment console in the United States (whatever that means), and Microsoft has a "clear line of sight to be the number one in the world."

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